Opinion u Ruth Conniff
Cash to cronies WEDC offers taxpayer support for Walker campaign contributors
Remember Georgia Thompson?
The Doyle administration civil servant who went to jail on federal corruption charges was a right-wing scapegoat during the 2006 governor's race, before she had her conviction overturned because the evidence was so thin. The Republicans piled on Thompson, who was actually a Republican hire, during their crusade to unseat Gov. Jim Doyle.
The case was a real head-scratcher from the beginning. Thompson's alleged wrongdoing consisted of awarding a state travel contract to a Doyle contributor who also happened to be the low bidder.
It's strange to think that Wisconsin used to have such a strong tradition of clean government that a non-scandal like Travelgate could become a major news story and cost a shy, apolitical bureaucrat her home, her savings, her pension and her good name, and land her in the federal pen.
Fortunately for Thompson, the Court of Appeals was so appalled by the overzealous prosecution of her case that the judges ordered her released immediately, the same day they heard oral arguments. The state rehired her, paid back her lost wages and legal fees, and everyone forgot the whole thing.
What a difference a few years makes.
Fast-forward to Gov. Scott Walker's Wisconsin, where the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), staffed by the governor's cronies, has misplaced millions in tax dollars, blew off auditing compliance rules, and went on a spending spree for iTunes gift cards, football tickets and booze. And the consequences are nil.
Gov. Walker, a.k.a. "Awesomesauce" — so dubbed by a right-wing blogger who attended his speaking gig in Indiana — prepares to sweep back into office for a second term, even as he launches the President Awesomesauce campaign.
What the hell happened to Wisconsin?
If the right-wing takeover of our state shows one thing, it's that Republicans know how to do political corruption right. Forget the penny-ante stuff that landed Georgia Thompson in the clink. A new report by One Wisconsin Now adds a twist to the jaw-dropping shamelessness over at the WEDC.
The report details how Walker's campaign and the Republican Governors Association raked in nearly $650,000 in donations from the owners and employees of the businesses that benefited from the WEDC's largess. Walker, who is chairman of the WEDC board, received $429,060 in campaign contributions from the businessmen, who got grants and tax credits from his new job-creation agency.
The Virginia-based Republican Governors Association, which spent almost $15 million electing Walker and defending him in the recall, got $218,899 from the same group of people.
Who paid for their WEDC-sponsored benefits? You and I, of course.
And what did we get? A state economy that still ranks among the worst in the nation for job creation and wage growth.
The state audit bureau gave up on trying to assess WEDC claims that the tax credits it handed out actually resulted in companies creating jobs. As the auditors put it, "in the absence of verified performance information, we did not assess the effectiveness of WEDC's economic development programs."
Nor did WEDC cite a number for total jobs created in its 2012 annual report. As WEDC spokesman Thomas Thieding put it, "We don't create the jobs. We help the job creators."
You can say that again!
The One Wisconsin Now report shows just how helpful a campaign contribution to Walker, head of that failed job creation agency, could be.
Take Link Snack Foods Inc. Walker announced a $75,000 taxpayer-financed grant to the junk-food concern in April 2011. The grateful owner, John Link, gave Walker $5,000 on Aug. 1, 2011. A month later, on Sept. 16, his company got a $100,000 tax credit. Before Christmas, in December 2011, Link expressed his gratitude by giving Walker another $6,017.
Or take Walker's longtime supporter Scott Meinerz, who runs the Racine-area company Echo Lake Foods. That company got a $300,000 job creation tax credit from the WEDC on Nov. 11, 2012. One month later, Meinerz gave Walker $5,000.
The list goes on and on. In April 2012, Bevco Engineering got a $120,000 tax credit from the WEDC. In May, two Bevco employees, Chris Shult and Trish Shult, gave Walker contributions worth $5,000 and $1,300 each.
You get the picture.
The benefits for taxpayers of these gifts, according to Walker and the WEDC, will come in the form of job creation down the road. But any business owner can tell you that consumer demand, not cash gifts, drives business growth and job creation. No matter how much cash Governor Awesomesauce is willing to spread around, if Wisconsin remains in the toilet for wages and gives away money to political contributors instead of making real investments in education and infrastructure, the folks who are paying for all this still can't afford to buy anything. And that "Open for Business" sign isn't worth the taxpayer-subsidized paper it's printed on.